Blog Post

Design for Disruption: Architect Disaster-Proof Academic and Workplace Learning Strategies

Published: Saturday, May 9, 2020
Updated: Thursday, May 21, 2020

By: Treca S. Stark and Brenda C. Williams

“The global lockdown of education institutions is going to cause major (and likely unequal) interruption in students’ learning; disruptions in internal assessments; and the cancellation of public assessments for qualifications or their replacement by an inferior alternative…” (Burgess & Sievertsen, 2020).


While teaching a 16-week project management course to adults of all ages, an unintended disruption occurred for two weeks where the instructor contracted a communicable disease.  The course was a capstone course that the students needed to pass to fulfill their degree requirements.  Although a blended course by design, incorporating in-class and online components, there was no requirement for instructors to build their course sections with disruption in mind, defined as ensuring that all content from assignments to discussions are built out in the academic learning management system (LMS) in advance coupled with a strategy for ensuring continuity of teaching and learning should on-site classes be unavailable.  Ideally, master course templates would consider this reality.  However, for a variety of reasons, ranging from resources to capabilities, taking the action of establishing a disaster-proof course master template is not always feasible for some organizations.  

With a background in higher education, talent development, and e-learning coupled with being prone to be ready for whatever may come, designing for disruption was a big push; hence, why it was modeled in practice with the students during this unexpected period of contagion.  Having complete course modules in the LMS along with integrated real-time technologies, class was not canceled once during those two weeks.  The students had been surveyed during the first week of class about technological resources to which they had access and asked to share a plan of action should the class need to be taken online.  Research showed that students tend to be more prepared when a disaster is imminent (Tkachuck et. al, 2018) as is the case when students study in disaster prone geographic regions, so priming students for a potential disaster promoted a level of readiness.   Baytiyeh (2018) stated, “technology can provide access to education for learners who often cannot gather in traditional school settings after disasters” (p. 216).  And while disasters can range from the instructor being unavailable due to illness to a natural disaster such as a pandemic, there can be disruption during and after, which can negatively impact the learning experience.  Ergo, instructional leaders and faculty owe it to our learners to do what we can to ensure a high-quality learning experience.       

With experiences as a talent development practitioner and adjunct professors for local, regional, and global organizations, we realize that designing for disruption is not optional in academia or workplaces.  Having taught course sections that had master course templates built for online or on-site delivery, the necessity of a strategy that considers either delivery modality has supported the continuity of teaching and learning during emergency situations.  Additionally, managing talent development operations for a professional services firm with employees across the globe with hundreds of course offerings, all courses had an online version, which further facilitated continuity of learning operations.  That alone made transitioning to online in an emergency far more feasible than redesigning for online given that the design work was already done, and sections could be scaled up.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many academic institutions and workplaces found themselves scrambling to place courses online with equity implications for making this move to online.  Our 2017 study entitled, A Statistical Analysis Examining the Usability of Community College Online Admissions Applications (Stark, 2017) considered the digital divide in relation to access to technologies to support education, further demonstrating that equity must always be considered as we make decisions.  Compounding the matter, some faculty had never taught online prior to COVID-19 and found themselves ill-equipped to do so.  With that lack of proficiency considered, an instructor’s inability to teach or design effectively for an online learning environment should not be attributed to the online nature of delivery nor should it become the archetype of online education.  Instead, lack of competency in instructional practices and instructional design for online learning as opposed to the modality should be addressed to better equip instructors.   According to Kelly (2020), “at last count, 4,235 higher education institutions across the United States have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic — affecting an estimated 25,798,790 students…”  These are staggering numbers and thus, leads to the impetus for this article.  We offer the following questions: Where do we go from here? Who is prepared? Who is impacted? How do we all feel about what has happened? What are the disparities?  Finally, what are the solutions is our last inquiry. 


As a result of the advent of COVID-19, universities and colleges have had to make adjustments quickly to address academic needs which will now be online. According to Abdel-Kader (2020) in his article Harnessing Technology for Global Education, he suggests that, “despite closed classrooms and campuses around the world, educators must continue to ensure their students are prepared to succeed in today’s world” (p.1).  This has put many if not most, colleges and universities in a quagmire to move all instruction into a distance learning mode of instruction.  Moreover, many institutions are grappling with the issues surrounding how to manage their LMS to move current courses to a platform that is in alignment with distance learning. Abdel-Kader provides a glimpse into what will happen when he suggests that, “As distance learning becomes the new norm for many faculty members and students, classroom instruction through screens will become engaged  in the operation and infrastructure of primary, secondary and higher education systems and in the learning experiences of an entire generation of students” (Abdel-Kader, 2020, p.1; Burgess & Sievertsen, 2020 ).   

Another scholar, Sahu (2020) posits that, universities and colleges may not necessarily have adequate infrastructures and internet access and other IT resources to make a major shift to online classes. Also, many universities do not have enough infrastructure or resources to facilitate online teaching with immediacy. Additionally, Sahu questions whether many students are ready for this disruption, which requires them to have IT hardware, software, and access to the internet at home.  Again, preparation needs to remain on the forefront for administrators and university leaders as this is most likely the largest disruption to instruction.

 There is an opportunity to become innovative and offer instruction in a myriad of ways. Institutions that will be most successful will more likely take this opportunity to inform, instruct, and inspire faculty and students to challenge themselves to embrace an effective implementation of instruction in a virtual exchange program (Abdel-Kader, 2020, p. 2). But, in order for this to happen, the support and buy-in of critical stakeholders such as senior leadership must trickle down to faculty, staff, and students.  At this time, the information technology arm of the institutions must be allowed to explore, create, and introduce new global virtual exchanges that can be managed with current enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems allowing students who are most likely geographically-separated to interact, communicate, and continue without interruption with academic learning. 

Another view is offered by Sahu (2020) that suggests that while many faculty experienced anxieties about the disruption and moving to online platforms, “worldwide, many teachers and students have been excited by the move to the online delivery mode. Faculty have already begun preparing lesson plans to deliver online teaching to their students “(p.2).  Additionally, Sahu indicates that many faculty were already equipped with technology and access to the internet. Arguably, this may not be the case for many faculty who are not as technologically savvy and comfortable with the ease of moving, which Sahu (2020, p. 2) also acknowledges.

Humanism and Well-Being

After the LMSs are implemented, then institutions must contemplate how to manage the human element of how students and faculty alike think and feel (Lederman, 2020b, p. 1) that comes into play.  According to Lederman (2020b) he posits that there is an impact on everyone involved that has an effect on their well-being due to these sudden changes.  Lederman (2020b) offers a discussion from Dr. Bryan Alexander, futurist, educator, and writer who offers that three things will happen: 

…First, if bad-experience stories circulate and have influence, we could see participation and even enrollment decline. Second, given equity issues worsened by recession, open education resources and open-access publishing could triumph. We may also see inequality drive different technology uses, with wealthier communities using more demanding technologies (virtual and mixed reality, telepresence) while poorer ones turn to tools with lower infrastructure demands (asynchronous video, audio, images, and text).  Third, as entirely online pedagogy continues, certain pedagogies and support structures should win widespread attention. Colleges and universities might compete for students (as well as faculty and staff) based on how well and prominently they carry out these teaching methods. Fourth, if the pandemic persists unevenly, coming and going in waves over a long period, we might get used to alternating between face-to-face (i.e., really blended) teaching and wholly online instruction. (p.2)

Because of these sudden shifts in pedagogy, platforms, and LMSs, it might be suggested that many will be swirling in their ability to manage the sudden shift and emotional well-being.  This will be an opportunity for senior leadership to offer more counseling services and chances for faculty to engage often in types of collegial discussions that support each other and provide positive solutions to sudden change.

This emotional well-being does not end with this move to distance learning platforms.  Faculty are weighing in that there is a sense of isolation. Colleen Flaherty (2020) in her article entitled, Working from Home During COVID-19 Proves Challenging for Faculty Members, sees some sense of a negative impact. In fact, according to Flaherty (2020), there was a thought that this would be a time for great production and a time to continue with research and work on scholarly adventures and continuous work on gaining tenure.  However, what emerged was a feeling of isolation and she found that the result was the opposite where, “The retorts came almost as quickly as these views were voiced. No, this spring will not be a time for groundbreaking insights and increased productivity, and institutions should not expect either, academics argued” (p.1).  Universities have essentially put a hold on the faculty tenure process in most cases.  So, the question becomes what will institutions do?  According to Flaherty (2020) and (Sahu, 2020) after researchers agree that,

… loosening expectations at many institutions means giving assistant professors another year or, less commonly, six months, on their tenure clocks. Scores of institutions have already announced new policies to this effect, making them automatic or allowing professors to opt in or out, according to a crowdsourced list that grows daily. (p.2)

The sense of well-being is now being tested even more as students who are living during the times of COVID-19 are now rethinking their selection on attending colleges away from home and want the comfort of being closer to their home-base.  Based on financial aid concerns, according the New York Times, “Administrators anticipate that students grappling with the financial and psychological impacts of the virus could choose to stay closer to home, go to less expensive schools, take a year off or not go to college at all” (Hartocollis, 2020, p. 2).  This is another show of how the issues of well-being and mental support have come into play with college selection.  Kent D. Syverud, The Chancellor of Syracuse University, has posed this difficult question as well with college students in NY where he also echoes the issues of well-being of students and their futures now and decisions they have to make when he said, “The combination of fear for health and safety and the economic impact …” (Hartocollis, 2020, p. 2).  Another scholar, Gross (2020) offers her opinion on the state of students’ well-being when she presented that educators need to find to understand more than the issues of instruction and COVID-19 guidelines, but don’t overlook the, “… the psychosocial impacts of the threat of the virus and school closings and disruptions on students” (p. 3). Moreover, she suggests that we should move beyond just the students, but don’t forget that these emotional issues spill over in the families. In fact, Gross (2020) makes it very clear that the emotional distress is even more serious to understand disruption due to COVID-19 as, “… traumatizing and lead to trauma symptomology” (p. 3) which we believe requires student services and those who offer counseling as a necessary part of the preparation for well-being.  These concerns will continue at best to be a discussion that many institutions will have to keep their eye on and gauge the pulse of the college community on their own sense of well-being.

Disparities, Social Limitations and Technology

With technology challenges and other factors that are causing disruption, there is an overwhelming need for administrative leaders to be mindful of disparities as they continue to gear up to meet demands for distance education.  There has been a historical issue in higher education in terms of underrepresented populations. According to Khatrichettri and Light (2020) they offer that, “The unifying theme for the members of most historically underrepresented groups, now referred to as the new majority, upon entry into higher education institutions is a sense of disempowerment, resulting in a stronger awareness of disparity” (p. 1).  This premise now has a new element for further discussion during the trying times of COVID-19 with the numbers of this new majority further marginalized and disenfranchised by the move to distance learning. The lack of technological equipment (laptops, PCs, tablets, etc.) as well as the lack of internet access.   

In a survey conducted by Barnes & Noble Education, during a period of Mach 23, 2020, Survey: Students Worried about Switch to Online, the data show that 64% of students were concerned about how they would maintain their grades moving to distance learning platforms; 45% had concerns about the loss of social interactions, and 12% “are worried their internet access isn't good enough for online learning” (St. Amour, 2020, p. 1).  She reminds educators that there is a need to show support to students who are experiencing challenges with such a quick lifestyle disruption which has shown an impact on them socially and emotionally.  Our suggestion is that institutions need to put a closer watch on that population of students that do not have access to technology or access to the internet.

Burke (2019) suggests that Derek Bruff, Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, “believes that learning objectives should guide how college instructors use technology, not the other way around. In his new book, Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching” (p. 1), educators now need to more than ever show how we deliver during disruption to provide continuity of IT services to adequately to faculty, staff and students.  Finally, Khatrichettri and Light (2020) have a powerful conclusion where they provide deliberative dialogue on the solution to level the playing field to address these disparities when they offered that, “institutions have an obligation to ensure resources equitably match the needs of the students they serve” (p. 2). 


 Seeking Solutions for the Future

Now that we have provided you an overview of the conundrum that we have all faced due to COVID-19, our topic, Design for Disruption: Architect Disaster-Proof Academic and Workplace Learning Strategies, speaks volumes. We hope that many of you grappling with keeping your institutions going with the focus of commitment to learning, communication, innovation, access, technology, and new learning platforms find opportunities instead of oppression; change instead of challenge; excitement instead of fear; strong communities of learning instead of isolation at home; enthusiasm instead of impassiveness; and finally a new outlook for change instead of fear to innovate.  

In an article authored by DeVaney and Quintana (2020), Preparing for Future Disruption: Hybrid, Resilient Teaching for a New Instructional Age, they have words of comfort for all of us, which should be the hallmark of our new normal not to forget who we are as a community in higher education when they said:

We must travel purposefully through a period of emergency remote teaching, to enhanced remote teaching and ultimately to hybrid, resilient teaching.  At each stage we need to lead with institutional values while distinguishing one stage from another, adopting clear language and objectives. Importantly, we cannot assume that faculty will be ready to move forward from one stage to another in lockstep. Different levels of familiarity and comfort with online teaching and technology call for a range of individualized educational development opportunities, communities of practice and other forms of support. We stabilized our campuses over the last month. As we look ahead to spring, summer, and fall, we can begin to transition from emergency remote teaching strategies and begin integrating more effective online instructional techniques. (p. 1)

Some scholars who spoke at a webinar, Fixing Higher Ed’s Inequities in a Time of Crisis, sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Ed, April 17, 2020,  offered that much of the solution will now lie in the combined help with public-private partnerships (PPP) as states and the federal government bail outs will quickly be accessed by colleges and universities bidding for the same dollars.  According to an article from Campus Technology Magazine, “…which since 2004 offers: …valuable hands-on articles, best practices, industry trends, expert advice and insightful articles to help administrators, campus executives, technologists and educators plan, develop and successfully launch effective IT initiatives,” posted what Amazon is doing for colleges and universities.  According to Schaffhauser (2020), Amazon has a plan for contributing to higher education institutions:

Amazon Web Services (AWS) Education has introduced a set of free resources intended to help teachers and faculty in K-20 with their transitions to remote teaching and learning.  In developing the roster of offerings, the Educator Mobilization Initiative looked to the results of a global survey among educators as well as its own education ambassadors who serve as evangelists for Amazon technologies:

  • Webinars on topics related to remote learning. The sessions last an hour and cover subjects such as project-based learning in distance education, gamification for the class, creating videos that students will watch and ensuring academic integrity;
  • Virtual office hours that provide participants with small group sessions on specific subjects and open times when people can ask more general questions;
  • Learning sessions on Amazon technologies, including lessons on cloud computing, chatbot creation, and how facial recognition works; and
  • Student-specific virtual events on artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, and how to start a career at Amazon. (Schaffhauser, 2020, p. 1)

This is exactly the types of partnerships that institutions of higher education need to explore and implement when there is disruption to campus’ functioning during a crisis, which is to embrace PPPs.

While designing for disruption may be seen in the field of architecture as discussed in the Journal of the American Institute of Architect, there is clearly another type of architectural  disruption to be considered what we will call “Architect Disaster-Proof Academic and Workplace Learning Strategies” that permeates all workplaces and currently in all of higher education.  Scholars, university leaders, faculty, and staff have weighed in on how they had to transition during a Global Pandemic.  Their quick changes to develop and implement new policies and procedures, develop online courses and instruction, implement crisis management in the workplace, and manage safety and security of employees/students and the well-being of employees/students will all be challenged to look to the future, which now includes the hallmark of moving forward during a time of disruption.

Finally, it appears that it is essential for all organizations to move ahead with the new normal as we get back to work, school, learning, and well-being.  This moving forward would best be served with collaboration, coordination, and consideration of new ways to conduct business.


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About the Author

Dr. Treca Stark is strategic and entrepreneurial with a distinct ability to conceptualize and execute. She is an authentic leader who is savvy at articulating vision, championing new initiatives, and directing programs for global, regional, and local organizations. Additionally, she is skilled at strategic planning and transforming plans into pragmatic objectives.

She has served as an essential partner in the creation of products and services that have met defined requirements and needs at public and private organizations. Treca is also masterful at training, motivating, and coaching people to high levels of performance and encouraging collaboration among diverse people to form powerful high-performance teams.

Dr. Stark attained a doctorate from Morgan State University, a master’s degree from University of New Orleans, and a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University New Orleans. She is also a Certified Professional in Talent Development.

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